Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Two Luthiers - Mark Gresham & Barry Kratzer

Mark Gresham

Barry Kratzer

Savannah isn’t exactly an acoustic instrument kinda town. Well, there is the Savannah Music Festival, which brings cutting edge music to town every March and April, but when it comes to home grown acoustic and bluegrass, there really isn’t much there. Which brings up the question of why I was able to find three very high quality acoustic luthiers here. I wrote about Randy Wood a couple of days ago. Back in the workshop at the Randy Wood Guitar Store I met Mark Gresham, working as a contract luthier for Wood. According to Dennis Saterlee, a gifted local musician, Gresham is, “one of the great undiscovered luthiers on the planet.” While visiting at Mark’s small workshop behind his house, I met Barry and Sabine Kratzer from nearby Guyton. The Kratzers build beautifully finished and mellow sounding mandolins under the name of Bulldog Instruments. Talent is where you find it.
Mark's Shop

Mark at Work in Shop
Mark Gresham is a native of Savannah, but was infected with the instrument building bug while serving in the U.S.Air Force in England. Soon after, he was stationed at the base in Minot, ND where he met his wife Cherie. Since returning to Savannah, Mark has worked in sheet metal while building instruments as a sideline. In recent years, he has been involved full time as a luthier, making instruments with a couple of partners before striking out on his own building guitars, resonator guitars and mandolins as well as working with master luthier Randy Wood. In partnership with Barry Kratzer, Mark produced just over forty mandolins, some of which are in the hands of noted pickers like Don Rigsby, Alan Bibey, and Shawn Lane. The partnership was amicably dissolved when it became apparent that each wished to build independently. They are still close, as evidenced by the fact that I met Kratzer in Mark’s shop while Mark was helping him on a repair.
Katie Wilson Playing Her Gresham Guitar

Barry and Mark Work on a Repair

Sherry Gresham at Jam

Mark Gresham builds several versions of guitars, varying in size and level of elaborations. He also makes custom resonator guitars and f-style mandolins. His work can be seen here. The instruments can be seen here. His instruments feature excellent use of woods, lovely inlays, and fine finishes. Prices are in the mid-range of custom made instruments, starting in the $2500 - $3000 range. The contact page on Mark Gresham’s web site will allow people interested in his guitars to begin the conversation. Or he can be called at (912) 656-0468. Gresham’s work as both a builder and a repair man is not as well known as he deserves. Take a look at his instruments.

Barry's Workshop

Mandolin Ready for Inlay

Barry and Sabine Kratzer build mandolins under the name of Bulldog Instruments. Barry, a native of eastern Pennsylvania’s coal regions, began playing bass at bluegrass events before he was tall enough not to need to stand on a milk crate. He met his wife, Sabine, a native of the former East Germany, while serving in the Air Force. Recently retired, after 36 years servicing Air Force planes, Barry makes powerful and beautiful mandolins and Sabine does beautiful inlays and decorations on their creations. After making instruments with Mark Gresham for about nine years, Barry was forced to leave the partnership because he was ordered to Iraq. On his return, he and Sabine set up shop in Guyton, GA.

Barry Kratzer Jamming at Randy Wood's

We first met Barry and Sabine at Mark Gresham’s shop, where Mark was helping with a resonator guitar repair. When I asked Barry if we could visit his shop between the jam at Randy Wood’s and the evening performance, they immediately invited us for dinner. We caught up with Barry at the jam, where he was playing bass when we arrived, later moved over to mandolin for a while, and sang both high tenor and baritone in the trios of this very good jam.

We drove up to a small, but comfortable, suburban home with the garage dominated by band saws, sanding machines, and the tools of the luthier. A partially completed mandolin was sitting on Sabine’s work bench waiting for her to do the custom inlay work. Another was hanging from a hook, prepared for spraying with the Kratzers’ characteristic sunburst decoration. We chatted about their work and Irene played one of Barry’s very good f-style mandolins. She liked the feel and the mellow tone of the instrument. She found it very easy to play with a fine setup. Barry noted that while several musicians had approached him to provide them with instruments, he no longer wished to give away his product.

Sabine Kratzer and The Monroe

Sabine brought out the Bill Monroe mandolin they are currently completing. This instrument has a fine drawing of Bill Monroe embedded in the back, where an owner could have Monroe next to his heart or show it to those who’re interested. Once the finish is completed, Monroe’s face will show through the rich sunburst glow of this piece. Barry has also produced a custom bass and a fiddle. Currently they are producing about one instrument a month and are happy to show their product or take orders for new instruments.

Irene Playing a Kratzer Mandolin

Barry Kratzer with his Latest Finished Product

Barry and Sabine Kratzer attend bluegrass festivals in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina in their travel trailer, from which they display their work. Their web site is quite comprehensive. Besides getting to see Barry and Sabine's instruments, we also enjoyed a delicious German dinner with two new friends. They can be reached by phone at (912) 728-8840 or (912) 655-9613. In addition to building fine custom instruments, Barry does repairs. Both Mark Gresham and the Kratzers have joined the ranks of first class custom acoustic instrument makers and deserve wider attention.